Aim Low: The Way To Make New Year’s Resolutions Work

The temptation is to go big with dreams of changing your life—but that could be setting you up for more disappointment.

There’s something about the first few minutes of Jan. 1 that convinces you to resolve to improve yourself in the coming year.Perhaps, it’s that after imbibing the sixth glass of bubbly (or seventh… who’s counting?) on New Year’s Eve.

Or, maybe it’s that in the midst of the holidays, you’ve finally gotten the chance to stop and realize some things about yourself that you don’t exactly love.“I had gone home for winter break and realized I had gained almost 50 pounds in three-and-a-half years of college,” Raafi Alidina, now 26, said via email of his senior year of college New Year’s resolution.

“I was super-scrawny when I started freshman year and a decent amount of that weight was just growing into body… but there was still a lot of weight from just poor eating habits, not exercising, etc. So, I made a resolution—that year, 2012, would be the year I finally started working out regularly for an extended period of time and get into the kind of shape I wanted to be in.”According to a survey conducted last year by Nielsen, 37 percent of respondents said they wanted to stay fit and healthy and another 32 percent wanted to lose weight as New Year’s resolutions.Only 16 percent of respondents said they didn’t plan to make any resolutions. That means more than 80 percent got swept up in the New Year’s resolution hype.“It’s a tradition,” Dr. Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist in Pennsylvania and author of Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide For Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior, told The Daily Beast.

“And misery loves company,” she added with a laugh.

Making resolutions for the New Year seems as organic and commonsensical as New Yorkers avoiding Times Square during the ball drop.“As people, we often focus on negatives,” Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, told The Daily Beast. “We focus on the things we’ve missed, things we didn’t get to do. A resolution kind of publicly states that in a nicer way: These are the things I didn’t get to do. It’s to say next year, I’m hoping to do that.”

Of course, it doesn’t take an expert on subliminal messages to see that gyms, health food stores, and other companies are playing to our New Year’s hunger for improvement.

“I’ve noticed that the advertising from the local grocery store has changed. Last month it was advertising butter, nuts, and sugar, and now they are promoting cottage cheese and yogurt,” said Wallin.

But it takes more than a few days of fat-free Greek yogurt or not buying a handle of bourbon to accomplish resolutions.

“It’s easy to see yourself being different, but you tend to underestimate the amount of effort involved,” said Wallin. “You jump on the New Year’s resolution bandwagon, plus you’re bloated from from the holidays. You’re not that tempted, so it’s easier at first. That’s a few days, [but] then the hunger comes in.”

And the motivation exits.

Alidina discovered this for himself shortly after he got back to school. “My routine was different than at home, and I had never really worked out while at school, so I hadn’t figured out how to keep up with assignments and studying, my social life, and exercise. Exercise just fell out of the picture as a result.”

“The problem is we make very unrealistic goals, like ‘The wedding is coming up in June, I’m going to lose 40 pounds,’” said Ferrari. “That’s not going to happen. Unless you’re going to have just water—not even bread and water because breads have carbs—you’re not going to do it and then you’re going to boomerang.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

In fact, according to an oft-touted study by psychologist John Norcross at the University of Scranton, about a quarter of people who made resolutions have given up just two weeks into January.

When Norcross did a follow-up survey two years after the resolutions were made, only 19 percent said they had kept to to their resolution goals.

“Any kind of behavioral change usually requires several attempts,” said Wallin, and Alidina’s experience confirmed it. He described how when March hit, “I saw myself shirtless in a full-length mirror for the first time in a long time, and I didn’t like what I saw.”

“For some people who may feel insecure in the first place, this [failing to achieve a New Year’s resolution] may be another way of reinforcing the thoughts, like ‘I’m no good,’ and lowering self-esteem,” said Dr. Ferrari. “If you lack self-confidence already, trying to obtain these unrealistic goals will only push low self-esteem. It can be a vicious cycle. It can be ‘Let me have another jelly doughnut because I can’t do it, anyways.’”

By no means did Ferrari or Wallin think New Year’s resolutions in and of themselves were bad ideas. Rather, it was the kinds of resolutions people tend to set for themselves that proved problematic.

“We need to be realistic in those resolutions,” said Ferrari, by which he specifically meant one’s resolutions should be “observable, specific, and behavioral.”

For example, saying you want to get in shape is way too vague. You can’t quantify it or create a specific target or goal around it. However, saying you want to go to the gym two more times a week than you usually do is specific enough and achievable enough that it becomes a manageable prospect.

Wallin offered similar advice. “If you want to run five miles, you run one mile and you’re huffing and puffing. What’s more likely to keep you motivated? Thinking ‘I’ve got one mile under my belt.’ or ‘I’ve got four miles to go?’ Focus on the smaller number at the beginning of your journey, either in pounds or laps you’ve run.”

Meanwhile, she advised that when you’re close to achieving a goal but not quite there, don’t rest on laurels and think of all you’ve accomplished, but how little is left to fully complete your goal.

“Focus on how close you are to meeting your goal,” Wallin said. “If you’ve lost a lot of weight and there’s cake in the office room, focus on how few pounds are left to lose to meet your goal.”

Once you’ve achieved a part of your New Year’s goal, it’s easier to stick with it, as Alidina found.

After his first attempt failed, he found a specific exercise program that was structured over a finite period, nine weeks, to which he was able to commit. When he had achieved that, he made other changes. “I kept thinking, ‘Do I really want to ruin that insane workout for a couple of cookies? No, it’s not worth it.’”

Alidina ultimately lost 27 pounds and was in “the best shape of my life.”

Another way to increase your odds for New Year’s resolution success rate is cringe-inducing for some of us: Going public.

While the social media universe is a treasure trove of trolls eager to piss all over one’s dreams, Ferrari suggests using social media platforms to share goals—at least with friends and loved ones.

“When you publicly post something you want to do, it is much more likely to get done than something you do privately,” Ferrari said. “Simply by going online and saying ‘This is something observable and attainable that I want to do,’ you’re more likely to achieve it because you’re held accountable by others.”

“Surround yourself with friends who are more likely to work with you,” Ferrari added. “It’s a mosh pit for success. You jump and everyone catches you. We’re social animals. We’re social creatures.”